Why I'm Joining the World Economic Forum

The logo of the Forum is seen through a window with the alps in the background during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Swit
The logo of the Forum is seen through a window with the alps in the background during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. The World Economic Forum is opening today where world's financial and political elite will meet in the next four days in Davos. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

I've just accepted an important role as a senior advisor to the World Economic Forum. I'm helping the Forum in the development of its Global Agenda Platform, which is seeking to build communities of NGOs, academics, governments and business leaders around critical issues facing humanity.

I've attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos as a member of the faculty 10 times going back to the late 1990s. But this is the first time I've taken on a formal, voluntary role. I'm doing this because I think the time is right to help take the organization to the next level as an influential powerhouse to improve the state of the world. I'll still continue as the CEO of The Tapscott Group think tank, as a fellow at the Martin Prosperity Institute, as the executive chairman of the Global Solution Networks (GSN) program and as the chancellor of Trent University.

I just returned from my first brainstorming session at the headquarters of the Forum in Geneva, and I must say I'm enthusiastic. The new initiative is the culmination of years of work. The Forum began in 1971 as a meeting of European executives to discuss pressing global problems. It evolved into a think tank, researching various issues and convening other events. From there it continued to evolve into a network of governments, private companies, civil-society organizations and individual citizens -- the new four pillars of society -- all trying to act in their common self-interest. Today you could think of the organization as a "do tank" that is engendering many communities that are researching, discussing and taking action on a number of global issues.

The Forum's Center for the Global Agenda is working to create a trusted space for top-level collaboration to advance the global agenda on nine of the world's pressing challenges. I've presented these as hotlinks so you can read more about each of these initiatives:

These issues can't be tackled by an annual meeting at Davos or some other location. They require 365-day, real-time collaboration. To achieve this, the Forum has undertaken the construction of an elaborate, technology-enabled, virtual collaboration space called the Global Agenda Platform.

This effort seeks to enable communities to form around these nine issues by providing an efficient means to combine the expertise and resources of governments and non-state actors, as well as by accelerating progress on global challenges that require a more multistakeholder or interdisciplinary approach.

The Forum has unique convening power to bring together key leaders in each of the nine issues. In fact, it's hard to think of another organization that has the connections and muscle to pull this off. Leaders will be collaborating around a number of specific challenges that are handpicked as good candidates for the collaborative space we are building.

Still, while the Forum has shown that it can attract business CEOs, heads of state and government ministers and deputies, CEOs of NGOs, and the world's leading thinkers and academics to participate in face-to-face events like Davos, it's another thing to entice them to use a virtual platform year-round.

To make this work, the platform needs strong functionality, a rich store of knowledge, good connections with the other social media tools that executives use and a user interface that is elegant and as simple as pie.

Ambitious, you say? You'd be right in thinking that this is a massive, perhaps unrealistic, undertaking. But it does make sense when you consider the evolution of the Forum as one of the new models of how we can solve global problems and even govern ourselves on this shrinking planet.

Throughout the 20th century nation states cooperated to build global institutions to facilitate joint action and address global problems. Many of these organizations were created in the aftermath of World War II. They include the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, the G8, the World Trade Organization and numerous other organizations based on nation states. For decades these large international institutions, including the EU, have wrestled with some of the world's most intractable problems -- the kind of problems that don't fit neatly into departmental pigeonholes. But progress has been slow or nonexistent.

The inability of the G8 and G20 to address the global economic crisis; the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organization; and the previous conferences on climate change show that formal international systems for cooperation are inadequate to achieve world goals of economic growth, climate protection, poverty eradication, conflict avoidance, human security and behavior based on shared values.

Today we see a fundamental change emerging regarding how global problems can be solved. New non-state networks of civil-society, private-sector, government and individual stakeholders are achieving new forms of cooperation, social change and even the production of global public value. They address every conceivable issue facing humanity, from poverty, human rights, health and the environment to economic policy, war and even the governance of the Internet itself.

Enabled by the digital revolution, these networks are now proliferating across the planet and increasingly having an important impact in solving global problems and enabling global cooperation and governance. As part of a recently completed, three-year, multimillion-dollar research program, I've dubbed them Global Solution Networks (GSN), of which the World Economic Forum is a prime example.

A GSN is a group of independent parties who have been brought together by a world problem they all perceive to be important, and which no single group has the ability to handle on its own. They become a network when they begin communicating about and coordinating their activities to make progress, rather than working independently and competitively. They involve different parts of society and, most importantly, unlike the UN, the IMF, the World Bank or the G8, are not controlled by nation states.

There are 10 different types of these networks. For example, there are advocacy networks like Kony 2012, mobilizing tens of millions of people to change policy, and knowledge networks like Wikipedia, Galaxy Zoo and TED. Policy networks like the International Competition Network determine policy for global institutions and governments. Human Rights Watch and Transparency International are watchdog networks, performing an oversight role, while networks that govern important resources -- like the ecosystem that runs the Internet worldwide -- are called governance networks.

The World Economic Forum is an example of what I call a global institution, because it combines the capabilities of many network types. But unlike traditional global institutions like the UN, the World Bank, the IMF or the G20, it qualifies as a GSN because it is not controlled by nation states.

It turns out that my choice of the term "institution" was propitious, because just a few months ago the Swiss government officially granted formal institution status under Swiss law.

As for the Global Agenda Platform, think of it as a supercharged social network for the leaders of civil society, business and government to collaborate and take collective action in improving the state of the world.

Don Tapscott is a media theorist, bestselling author and social innovator based in Toronto. This piece originally appeared on WEF's website.

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